The Maker’s Mark Fiasco: How Did They Not See it Coming?

Did you see the trainwreck? About a week ago, the management of Maker’s Mark announced to liquor store owners that they would be watering down the original Maker’s Mark recipe to keep up with rising demand (presumably in emerging economies like China). The new mixture, said management, would taste virtually the same but have an alcohol content of about 3% less.

In other words, the company would sacrifice quality and tradition for a few extra bucks.

As anyone who read the announcement would guess – fans went bat-shit crazy on Twitter, Facebook, and email. Maker’s Mark responded the way any sane company would and promptly apologized on Sunday via Facebook, with COO Rob Samuels saying “You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.” Fans were appeased, but Maker’s damaged their brand.

The thing I can’t seem to understand is, how did these guys not see the backlash coming? I spoke with the owner of Downtown Cellars on Liberty St. in Manhattan’s Financial District, and he said that he couldn’t care less if the alcohol content was dropped slightly as long as taste remained the same. What most everyone would acknowledge though is that perception often creates reality, and when Maker’s Mark fans felt the product that they recommend to friends was being diluted, they revolted. This is especially true in the luxury goods industry, where consumers don’t pay for ingredients, they pay for status.

I think the main point here is, if you in company management and you decide to change your core competency, in this case, the recipe that makes you world famous – think again. When firms like Instagram announce that they’ll sell user photos, they should have thought again – and their users forced them to.

The management at Maker’s could have saved themselves and their fans a lot of heartache if they had tested their announcement beforehand using surveys and focus groups. If they had done this, they might have seen it coming.